Sunday, September 28, 2014

Preserving High-end History - Part 2

In this series, I will interview a core group of dedicated technicians and engineers who do the same thing: restore antique gearThe common theme among these restorers is their early-life fanaticism, attraction, or addiction - none of these words truly come close to describing the intense love or passion behind the joy of bringing something old back to life. There is a moment in their lives where everything changes, a tug or pull that draws them into the fold and the mystery behind the glowing tubes and colorful parts captures their attention. This deep love and fascination steers their life's direction underlying almost everything they choose, even where they live and definitely their vocation.

Antique restoration of any form follows this same pattern. Think of restored cars, art, instruments, toys, all of those folks who choose to do so do it for more than the money. What it takes sometimes to complete the restoration cannot come close to breaking even but yet they do it anyway if there is uniqueness or just desire behind that articular effort. There seems to be a little voice inside that says, "I can make this work again..." that drives them all to do what they love.

While my main theme in this blog is high-end audio, I am temporarily expanding the theme in this series to include a few of these other dedicated individuals who restore other types of electronic treasures like radios and televisions. This same passion flows through their veins with such intensity that when meeting them you are immediately struck with their sincerity and expertise. All look at their work as preserving history and reviving what the inventor, engineer, or crafts person created. What attracts their attention is uniqueness, something they had not tried before and wanted to learn more about that particular thing that made it unique.

Audio engineers created novel solutions to the plethora of audio problems and many did so in an aesthetically pleasing manner to appeal to those who consider high-end gear ugly toys. Bang and Olufson (B&O), a company considered to produce good but not necessarily high-end gear, has at  least taken the concept of attractive designs to its own high-end extreme earning collection status in New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art.

For example, in the era of linear-tracking tonearms, the B&O Beogram 4000 turntable took what most manufacturers constructed as a mechanical masterpiece but a visual disaster and transformed it into a small piece of functional art. B&O carried a design theme across individual pieces so an entire system looked uniform, a continuation of an idea rather than a standout or afterthought. And it is for this reason I give B&O gear a nod for a less-than-optimum acoustic but top-of-the-line aesthetic system.

The B&O Beogram 4000 circa 1972
But I digress as usual and I must refocus on what this series will cover. To begin, here is a brief reminder of how this all came to be. Let's pause and recall the contributions of the inventors who developed the technologies we take for granted.

How It All Started
As mentioned in numerous posts in this blog, home audio entertainment began in 1877 with Edison's first cylinder player, a mechanical amplifier that took tiny vibrations recorded on a cylinder and using the horn-loading (i.e., impedance-matching) principle transformed whispers in the groove into roars from the horn. Electronics slowly evolved at this time with a basic discovery that electricity could move without a wire through a flame. From that knowledge, a man named Lee De Forest looked at this phenomenon a little differently and created a flame that did not extinguish, literally a glowing wire inside of a vacuum (aka a vacuum tube). From this approach he created the first electronic audio amplifier in 1906, a headphone amplifier for a radio receiver called the Audion.

The first prototype Audion with the grid (zigzag wires) between the filament and plate circa 1906
What intrigues me about Lee is his atypical approach to solving a problem. He looked at the issue from a different perspective than everyone else and came up with a solution that literally revolutionized everything. This radical idea started an industry making everything we know as electronic today possible, from radio communications, telephony, home audio, rock concerts, iPods, to computers and digital music, and anything else you can think of. It is this same interest in solving problems by looking at them from a different angle than everyone else that drives the high-end still to this day. We owe it all to Lee De Forest.

Refinements continued by many others to this first crude device made possible every electron tube ever conceived from the 12AX7 to the 5U4 to the KT88. And with the invention of the transistor on December 23, 1947 by the combined efforts of three Bell Telephone Laboratories Engineers, John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter Brattain, the history of amplification was again going to take a monumental turn.

The First Prototype Transistor circa 1947
And yet there was still another turn in the industry: the tiny integrated circuit. Here, thousands upon thousands of transistors could be packed into a small space giving engineers building blocks from which designs could be simplified. Two separate engineers, Jack Kilby  of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor, invented essentially identical devices (integrated circuits or ICs) and both were granted patents for their efforts. The difference was that Kilby used germanium (US Patent #3,138,743) and Noyce used silicon (US Patent #2,981,877) for the semiconductor material. Despite ensuing legal battles, the two wisely decided to cease litigation and cross-license their technologies. This solution gave birth to an industry that made miniaturization possible, one that we take for granted today.

Two separate engineers, Jack Kilby  of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor, invented essentially identical devices (integrated circuits or ICs) and both were granted patents for their efforts. The main difference was that Noyce used silicon (granted US Patent #2,981,877 in 1961) and Kilby used germanium (granted US Patent #3,138,743 in 1964) for the semiconductor materials. Despite ensuing legal battles, the two wisely decided to cease litigation, join efforts, and cross-license their technologies. This compromise gave birth to an industry that made electronic miniaturization possible, one that we take for granted today.

First Prototype Integrated Circuit of Jack Kilby circa 1958
The stage is now set for the active components used in all technologies for the manufacture of any electronic device. Combined with other passive components such as wires, transformers, resistors, capacitors, and inductors, and the previous invention of the printed circuit board by Paul Eisler in 1936, mass-produced electronics took off in the late 1960s. Because of this and other advances in manufacturing techniques, the cost of electronics of any kind tumbled making once hand-built esoteric things easily affordable.

It is the same type of history behind the product that restoration technicians and engineers value. What some people see as an antiquated piece of tinny-sounding junk these people view as high prized works of art. In Part 3, you will meet the first of these restoration experts and be introduced to their way of thinking. This series is not dedicated to old electronics or the advancement of the high-end as much as it is the people who care for these relics and the stories behind their passion.

If you wish to contact me for a restoration or upgrade, you can email me at
philip at okstatealumni dot org
I cannot guarantee I will respond quickly but I eventually get to all of my messages. Until next time, keep listening with your ears and not your eyes.

See also Part 1 and Part 3 of this series for more information on restorations and history.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

Skeptics are essential to keep us sane; skeptics do little to keep us inspired. Philip Rastocny, 7-16-2014

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